Authors: Kostya Kennedy
Copyright © 2011 by Kostya Kennedy
Published by Sports Illustrated Books,
an imprint of Time Home Entertainment Inc.
Time Home Entertainment Inc.
135 West 50th Street
New York, New York 10020
Book design by Stephen Skalocky
Indexing by Marilyn J. Rowland
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
ISBN 10: 1-60320-391-5
ISBN 13: 978-1-60320-391-3
Sports Illustrated Books is a trademark of Time Inc.
Cover photograph by AP: DiMaggio singles in the seventh inning, June 29, 1941, keeping the streak alive at 42 games
For Amy and Sonya and Maya,
the reason for it all.
And for Michael Goldstein, 1967–1989
Joe DiMaggio, 1941
he most dramatic baseball event of the past three
decades occurred on September 5, 1995, when Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. completed 4½ innings against the California Angels. That was the night that he tied Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. A few moments after the top of the fifth inning ended, making the game official, all of us in the packed and pulsing stands at Oriole Park at Camden Yards turned to look out beyond the right centerfield fence. Throughout that season the Orioles displayed Ripken Jr.’s consecutive game progress on spotlighted 10-foot-tall banners hung from the face of the old, brick B&O warehouse. When the fifth inning began the banners read 2,129. Now new sheets unfurled. The last two numbers changed: 2,130.
There it was. That impossible, ridiculous, extraworldy number that for nearly six decades had lived in our baseball books and in our imaginations. “That was something, wasn’t it, to see it out there like that,” the Angels infielder Rex Hudler said to me after the game. “I still have the goose bumps.” We all did. The number spoke of a seemingly transcendent achievement—before Ripken Jr. no player had gotten to within even 800 games of Gehrig’s total—and it hearkened to an old, true hero. Images of Gehrig, whose streak ended only when he was incapacitated by the ravages of ALS, the neuromuscular disease that killed him, appeared on the screens at Camden Yards. The number, like few others of its kind, drew a line as well to a distinct and distant era in the continuum of baseball, and of America. Now 2,130 has been pushed aside, lesser known and far less luminous than before, and Ripken Jr.’s final consecutive-game total of 2,632, not yet gilded by the passage of time—and subsumed in the sea of figures and statistics that overwhelm today’s game—has hardly replaced it in the baseball consciousness.
The game’s other old and connotative numbers have since been passed too. Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs, which for three decades lived worthily alongside Babe Ruth’s 714, was erased by a tainted player in a tainted era. Roger Maris’s 61, the record for home runs in a 162-game season which also lived beside a Ruthian figure—the Babe’s 60 homers in 1927—has been surpassed not once but six times by three players who are either admitted or deeply suspected users of steroids. The home run records, once hallowed, are hollow. Baseball’s most resonant numbers keep falling. But Joe DiMaggio’s is still there: 56 consecutive games with a hit. “And it feels pure,” the former Giants— batting instructor Carney Lansford said to me one afternoon at the batting cage in San Francisco. “You can cheat and break the home run records. You can’t do that with a hitting streak.”
Other team sports have their records, and their streaks, yet few of those numbers resonate beyond the tightest circles of their game. LaDainian Tomlinson’s NFL record for consecutive games scoring a touchdown (18); Dan Marino’s 27-year old single-season passing mark (5,084); Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA career point total (38,387); Punch Broadbent’s NHL record for consecutive games with a goal (16)—none has left more than the faintest stamp. None has elevated the record-setter to a loftier place than where he might have resided anyway in the public eye, and none of those records captured imaginations the way that Joe DiMaggio’s did and still does.
DiMaggio was no baseball immortal, nor an American icon, when the spring of 1941 began. He was 26 years old and like all the young men around him conscious of the gathering heat of the war abroad and of the widening reach of the U.S. military draft. He was less than two years into his first and increasingly difficult marriage to a movie actress. He would soon become a father. DiMaggio’s name had not yet been set to song. He had never appeared on television. He was more than a decade from meeting the love of his life, Marilyn Monroe, 14 years from induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame and 32 years from his tenure as a pitchman for Mr. Coffee.
After the hitting streak DiMaggio’s life, and his legacy, changed forever. And soon thereafter, on Dec. 7, 1941, America’s way of life, and its legacy, changed too. Those two months of the streak, later preserved in so many memories, were unlike anything that DiMaggio or those around him had experienced, or would experience again.